Defending the Faith of our Fathers!
Christ's Faithful People

Apologetics Page Library Page TOC Index Page Foot Notes Previous Next

Class 10

Free Choice (continued)

We have the strange situation that free choice is the cooperation of both reason and will, and so Saint Thomas says the judgment of the truly free choice is undertaken by reason, which provides the grounds for the truly free choice. The core of the liberty lies in the judgment of reason, which influences our choice. We do not always have the liberty to exercise our choice, because we are dependent upon circumstances — we may want to do something, but external circumstances may prevent us from doing it. Saint Thomas says the choice is free when it is based on a rational judgment. Then he says that what makes the choice free in the liberum arbitrium is the will, because it is the act of the will which causes the judgment of the reason in a free choice to be free. The will moves the reason, urging it to pass a judgment, and the reason in turn moves the will , by proposing an appropriate object. Both of them are involved. The will moves the reason to do something good for a mother, reason deliberates and proposes to write a poem, and then the will moves to write the poem. We need both cooperating. Saint Thomas says that free-choice is consequent, not antecedent to the action of the reason and the will. This is the dignity of the human being, that we are an image of God: we undertake an action determining the end and the means. Our dignity is that both our reason and our will are involved. We can define free-choice as willing directed by the judgment of reason, both simultaneously rational and volitional.

The Nominalists had introduced the idea of absolute arbitrary free will, in man and in God, that we can move in any direction we would like. Free choice is, rather, when our reason and will are both involved to make a choice. So the human liberty by which we make a free choice has been conditioned by our human nature, which has been permanently and objectively received by God and is rational in nature; our reason can discern that some things are more in accord with our nature. The capacity to perceive the objective nature, to pass judgment concerning action on the authority of my individual reason — this is a source of our personal dignity. Making use of the light of reason is necessary for the will to make proper use of itself. Were the will not guided by this life, it would be crippled. We are born somewhat lame in this regard, and we need to be educated to make good choices. As we grow more and more capable of persevering in good choices, we grow in freedom. So a choice is fully free and fully human when all the human faculties play their appropriate roles. A choice is immature when the directive role of reason is replaced by fear, peer pressure, or something else. If a girl aborts a child because she is afraid to tell her mother she’s pregnant, her choice is not entirely free, though she still has responsibility.

The formative importance of the parents for a child’s true liberty

In education it is important that parents sometimes tell us to do things we don’t understand. They have to help us to make choices. But there comes a time when we have to accept our parents’ choices as our own — like priests who were pressured by their family to get ordained. To try to back out later is also immature. Saint Thomas says that conscience is an act of reason, not of feeling or guilt or obligation. We don’t feel the conscience; it is a judgment of reason, though sometimes concomitant subordinate emotions will play a secondary role. So the will to defend itself to become free needs the support of reason, and true free-choice enhances our liberty. Education has to lead to the capacity for free-choice, to encompass both personal initiative and personal failure. Interior liberty grows in acts of love when we give ourselves freely to others, uniquely because we want to. Information in the education of teenagers, who need to be forced to overcome laziness, must include suggestions, leaving room for their inner choice.

Marie-Dominique Phillipe, OP, has said that the father should be present from the beginning of the education of his children. The father gives the children a sense of duty and work. The father grants a sense of the imperium, that is, the execution of something. When something has been decided upon, it is necessary to carry it out through the execution. Often the mother is too close, and when the child fears to pass through the execution, she may try to excuse it and impede his development. The father will insist, though sometimes he can go too far and assert his authority in a violent, external manner. He has to perceive this and the mother may have to moderate it, but the authority of the father is very important in the cultivation of the child’s sense of duty and work.

The authority of the father gives a sense of work, which is something to be learned. In obedience, the sense of work is developed and the will becomes one that is not only loving but efficacious. This is the task of the father — to aid in the aspect of efficacy, of work that will bring fruit. The work will not be one of an amateur. There is often a lack of proficiency in the young because their will is not formed; when we look closer, we see that the father was missing and the mother didn’t have the strength when she was alone. The mother has a sense of mercy and gives joy. She aids in the withstanding of the first suffering and first failures, whereas the father needs to encourage the child to cross the threshold, to go further. Sometimes he applies too much pressure, particularly when love in him hasn’t yet attained primacy. The father should have an ambition for his children, particularly for his sons. He should be demanding. In this way, he will form their will and help them persevere in the face of difficulties and suffering. The role of the father is important for the formation of the will , the willing of responsibility and efficacy. The role of the mother is important for awakening the intelligence and love. The formation of that intelligence depends upon the cooperation of the child and the father. While the mother’s role is important in the awakening of the intellect, the father plays a more important role in the formation of the structures of the intellect and the will.

We need to learn how to make our choices and to persevere in them. At the beginning of formation, sometimes the choices are made by our parents, to point the way to us. This influence is very important, but finally we have to learn to make the choices ourselves. As we make the choices we grow in liberty. So liberty, according to Saint Thomas, is not an immutable fact. We’re not born free. We’re born with an enslaved will, one incapable of persevering in decision. Liberty is a program of development. We grow in liberty when we exercise our free choice. We can always act in many ways, and the way we make decisions influences our liberty. The development of free will requires virtues, because virtues stabilize and give permanence to our choices. When we regularly choose to give ourselves, this grants a permanence to our freedom and to the adherence to goodness.

In the free choice of the good, if the act of reason which discerns the value is preceded by an act of faith by which I adhere to the mystery of the living God, placing my trust in him, then as a consequence in the will there is the divine love. This love is an act of charity, in which God’s love is present. Our life becomes supernatural through these free-choices, lived out in the perspective of faith. This gives a supernatural character to everything we do. Grace works within our faculties, causing us to be more free and more capable of sacrifice, giving, and helping others. The orientation given to our actions by the virtues, whether acquired or infused, develops our free will, the capacity to choose well, and the maturity of our person.

The Psychological Structure of the Human Act

This traditionally involves twelve steps:

Intentio, about ends:

1. simplex apprehensio — a judgment that the end exists.

2. simplex voluntas — wish or want.

3. iudicium proponens — a judgment that it can be achieved.

4. voluntas efficax — a determination to achieve it.

About means

5. consilium — deliberation about ways and means.

6. judicium discretivum — discrimination and selection of means.

7. consensus — the approval of some means and the rejection of others.

8. electio — choice.


9. imperium — practical and effective command (mental)

10. usus activus — application to deed (volitional)

11. usus passivus — performance by appropriate power.

12. quies — fulfillment

We also distinguish what intention means:

a) Actual — It exists in the moment of action and the agent is aware of it.

b) Virtual — The gaent has awakened it earlier, but at the moment he is not aware of it due to distraction. nevertheless, it contineus to influence action. The intention was never revoked and it contineus. When the distraction is perceived, the agent knows what he is doing and what he has to do (e.g., a priest who grants absolution while being distracted).

c) Habitual — It was aroused for the future adn it was never repealed, but it does not directly or indirectly influence the act (e.g., somebobdy has expressed the desire to receive the sacraments at the moment of death.) This intention does not influence daily activities.

d) Putative — We suppose that had he had a clear awareness of the matter, he would have intended action. (We administer the sacraments to a dying and unconscious man, because we assume that he would have the intention to receive the sacraments.)

Nominalists versus Saint Thomas on liberty

So the liberty Saint Thomas refers to in the liberum arbitrium leads to acts of quality, in which our adherence to values is expressed and recognized. This is completely different from the idea of liberty in the Nominalists, who treat liberty as an absolute indeterminism, a capacity to choose anything at all independently of the light of reason and goodness. Fr. Pinckaers compares the notion of liberty in Nominalism, which he calls indifference, and that of Saint Thomas. The liberty of indifference means the capacity to choose between two contraries. Liberty refers exclusively to the will. Saint Thomas says that liberty is the capacity to act with quality. If I choose evil, it means that there’s a deficiency in my liberty, that I haven’t grown in virtue and in the capacity to choose the good. The Nominalists exclude from liberty all natural inclinations, which limit choice, they say. Saint Thomas says that liberty is rooted within in the natural inclinations, that there is an attraction of the good.

Nominalist liberty is given entirely in the point of departure — were born free. Saint Thomas says that there is a germ of liberty at the beginning, an inclination toward the good which must be developed. For the Nominalists, each act is viewed separately, apart from the others. This is the idea which is at the back of casuistry. Saint Thomas sees liberty tying all individual acts together, ordered by an end. The intention ties together various acts giving them a continuity in time. The liberty of indifference doesn’t need virtue, seeing in it a certain routine. For Saint Thomas, virtue is dynamic and helps us to grow in virtue. Law limits liberty for the Nominalists; it is sapiential for Saint Thomas. The Nominalists separate liberty from the other faculties and from the liberty of other people. Each individual struggles for his own liberty. For Saint Thomas liberty ties together all our faculties and we cooperate with other people in the Church and society. The nominalist notion of liberty has a focus on obligation and law, whereas the Thomistic version is centered on the attraction of the good.

Grace and liberty

So we see the liberty of quality, which is helped by divine grace to effect a growth in liberty. We should help people to grow in liberty, to show them the fecundity of grace, to be better and more creative. The weakness of our free-choice in the face of temptations show us that liberty is demanding and that we have the consequences of original sin. The creative, open, generous personality is capable of a succession of acts that are truly good. Such a person is called a saint. But who can persevere in what is truly good? We need the help of grace. Even with grace, our choice of the good is not always continuous. We’re not living in heaven, but in time, and the Holy Spirit is helping us step by step to grow in liberty. Growth in grace is always accompanied by a feeling of weakness, and so we shouldn’t expect that month after month we’ll feel more free of temptations, of strength in perseverance, etc. Openness to grace makes us more dependent. We must cede to the primacy of grace within us. We have to be a child before God to receive the grace of God. Too many people think we have to be adults before God and show him we’re worthy.

Openness to grace in childlike humility helps us to undertake acts which surpass our human reason and will. Placing our trust in God will lead us to do things, by his prompting, that exceed our reason. This is the folly of the saints; they have the courage to do things that are mad. Grace functions within our free choice and it unites us with God. This is the meaning we have in the Lord’s prayer, "Thy will be done!" We are asking God to strengthen us, to enable us to do good things. The praying person requests that the exchange of love within the Trinity would fill our human will. We are asking God to liberate our human will from the various attractions of the senses, so that we can persevere in the choice of what is good.

Von Speyr in her memoirs said that when she couldn’t pray the words "Thy will be done!" because she recognized a mendacity on her part. Her Calvinist pastor told her not to pray it. Only after many years when she met Von Balthasar, who was a student pastor, did she find some peace. Von Balthasar said that when we pray "Thy will be done!" we are asking God for his grace to work within our will to condition it in such a way to undertake the goodness which God is suggesting to us. Von Speyr had a "tidal wave" experience. God can move the will from within; he created the will. Satan can tempt us, but not move it from within. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we are asking God to move us from within. When we’re speaking about growth in the spiritual life, we’re speaking about the fecundity of God within our will. The Holy Spirit enables us to do things we couldn’t do on our own power. The spiritual life consists in making choices in this manner, counting on God’s support. When we have faith in Jesus, we could do unbelievable things, like walking on water. Saint Thomas says that when we are open to grace, the gift of wisdom that we receive, the divine light, doesn’t blind us or destroy our reason — though the Carmelites will tell us that in spiritual progress there is somewhat a paralysis of the spiritual faculties; but this is not something which denies the dignity of our faculties but which helps us to trust in God.

There is an essential between the humility of reason in faith and the denial or malfunction of the reason. The gift of wisdom elevates the reason, bringing out a perspective which is open to the divine mysteries. This perspective has an inherent attractiveness, even though what is presented cannot be rationally explained, because it is based on faith. Sometimes it is difficult to explain rationally why we will persist in carrying a Cross — there’s a wisdom of the Holy Spirit working within us to carrying the Cross. A superior who is too good in the spiritual life might be like an umbrella who would shield us from the Holy Spirit. If the superior is difficult, then we have to accept him as an instrument and gift of God. Just as divine grace doesn’t deny the dignity of reason, but enables it to accept in the humility of faith the mystery which surpasses reason, similarly charity doesn’t immolate the will in love, but draws out of the will the natural inclination to that which is good presented by reason. When grace works in the will, it always strengthens the fascination with love. Though God does adapt the will to the power of divine love, it may be painful to progress spirituality. The feeling of weakness will accompany the progress in spiritual life. We may feel the weakness of our will, though God is drawing us.

We receive in grace a liberation of the free spontaneity, and not just the supply of extra energy for the execution of externally imposed obligations. The discernment in faith of the grace of the Holy Spirit restores the pristine spontaneous attraction of the will to that which is good. Saint Thomas says in the Summa Contra Gentiles that the disorder of the will — which needs healing — consists in that the will acts against itself, against that which it most profoundly desires, and also that the will acts in accord with itself and reason but interprets this as a burden. So either it is a question that we act against what we perceive is good, or we do what we ought to do but we don’t see the joy or love which is involved. Both these deformations of the will are corrected from within by the Holy Spirit. As we become more and more open to the work of God within us, these deformations are healed step by step by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us to discover the good, and so we become more and more free.

Factors that limit the voluntariness of acts

In the manuals of moral theology influenced by Nominalism, this question began to be very important. The question was whether an action could fit into the permissible limits of human freedom. The whole question was how far am I free in the constant conflict between God’s will and mine. It was necessary to know exactly how much we’re responsible for an action, to what extent our liberty and responsibility might have been reduced. If so, then maybe the punishment should be reduced in some way. Such questions are important in the judicial perspective. The judge needs to know how responsible a perpetrator is morally for his acts, if he is psychologically disturbed, for example. In the religious perspective, this question is important to determine whether we are at fault in committing a sin, and the sacrament of reconciliation has a judicial aspect.

But the judicial question is not the most important question we are concerned with in the Christian life. The most important is our participation in the life of God, our immersion in the pardon and mercy of God, our undertaking of the life of grace which invites us to actions of practical charity. For one who tries to live out his life in God, the question of the limits of voluntariness is not a fundamental question. If we try to live a spiritual life after sin, we turn to Christ for his help. We’re not concerned so much with the limits of sin, and whether the bad act could be imputed to us. The thinking is not centered on punishment, but on the love of God, where one asks God to heal the wounds of sin. The question of the limits of voluntariness is important for another reason.

We have to ask what are the factors that limit free choice. What are we to do to be free in our interiority? How can we be free of the internal and external structures which limit our free-choice? Do we act in such a way that we’re afraid of something? Are we internally forced by an obligation? Is the opinion of others decisive? If we’re afraid of novelty, this manifests a lack of trust in conscience. The Holy Spirit liberates within us a capacity to novelty, to do things we’ve never done before. We must be open to the creativeness of virtue. To be mature, sometimes we have to rebel against existing structures. Every young person must be a subject of his spiritual life.

There are several factors which limit voluntariness, none of which is capable of forcing the will to act against itself. There are remote factors, like original sin, which causes the darkness of the reason and difficulties in the will. Next we have Satan, who can influence on our external and internal senses, but he has no direct influence on the will. Then there are some personal conditions like temperament and personal dispositions, nervous disturbances, etc. Next, the climate, the food we eat (we don’t study well after we eat), social conditions (fads, etc.). There are also proximate factors. Coercion is one, but it can influence only those acts external to the will. The elicited acts are free from external coercion, but the imperated acts are open to coercion. Fear is another; it causes a disturbance in the mind, and it can cause an act to be partially involuntary. Third is passion, though fear is also a passion. Passion increases voluntariness, because the strength of passion often strengthens the will, guiding it towards that which causes delight. A violent movement of the passion causes the will to act with a greater dynamism. Passion is a sign of the intensity of the will. But the passions can sometimes blind the reason. When the passion is subsequent to the act of the will, it adds dynamism, it enhances freedom. The fourth factor is ignorance. We mean the lack of the knowledge that ought to be there, not just an error in judgment. If the ignorance precedes the act of the will, one is not culpable, for voluntariness is nullified (like accidentally shooting a friend rather than an animal). If the ignorance is subsequent to the will, because of lack of effort to know or to study, it increases voluntariness. A lazy medical school student is responsible for many later botched operations. We are not responsible for invincible ignorance.

The moral qualification of human acts

So far we’ve discussed how the will is involved in free choices. Our reflection so far has dealt with truly human acts. We’ve mentioned the type of actions that enter the realm of morals. Everything that isn’t free doesn’t enter the realm of morals. Moral acts are those in which the reason and the will are involved. Now we have to move on in our reflection to the assessment of the moral value of an action. How do we know that one act is good and one act is evil? In every human act we can assess its physical being and its moral being. When we raise our hand to greet someone, there is a physical act and a moral sign. Take away the physical component and we’re left with the moral component. Two actions may have the same physical component vastly different moral components. Saint Thomas uses the example of conjugal love and adultery, which has the same physical act. There is a different moral situation in the acts. How do we pinpoint what is involved in the moral qualification of acts? The moral qualification adds something to the physical being of a human act. What does it add, what changes can be detected?

Duns Scotus believed that the specific thing which is added to an act is the liberty. But the voluntariness of an act is a preliminary condition to the moral qualification of an act. It is not of its essence. Only an act which is free enters the realm of morals, but that’s not to say that the liberty qualifies the goodness or lack thereof an act. Veritatis Splendor defines morality as the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good (72). The rational ordering of the human act to the good in its truth, and the voluntary pursuit of that good known by reason, constitute morality. Activity is morally good when it attests to the voluntary ordering of the person to the end. The conformity of the concrete action to the good acknowledged in its truth by reason, which perceives truth, is central. Only when reason and will are involved can the act be good. The essence of the morality of an act consists in the transcendental relation of the free choice to the good, which can be judged by objective principles which have their ultimate source in the wisdom of God. We can see these principles in our reason and can judge whether our actions are in accord with them. The Commandments help us to see these principles.

Ockham perceived an external and subjective source of morality. The ultimate norm was the will of God, which could be irrational and capricious. It didn’t have to conform to the inclinations of human nature. God could have said, "kill!," "commit adultery!," etc. In modern times, we have some who propose an internal, subjective source of morality. The criterion of morality seems to lie in the sincerity of desires, of spontaneity, or the execution of an internal imperative (Kant). To the notion that one must follow his conscience is added often that one’s judgment is true merely because of its origin in conscience. In this way, the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding to the claims of sincerity, authenticity, being at peace with oneself. Some have been led to a radically subjective notion of morality, saying that something is good simply because someone was sincere, without reference to truth. It boils down to the notion that our subjective conscience is always infallible. Another modern position is that all our criteria should be objective and external, in fashion, in public opinion, in social contract or procedure.

All these propositions deny something that is objective and central in human nature, an internal set structure. We perceive a norm within us which is objective. Our reason perceives within us a light which is put there by our Creator. We perceive within us this objectivity. Good and evil have its structure in our human nature, and we can perceive it and be enlightened by it. We can then reflect on it. Saint Thomas has one sentence which ties up everything, "Haec autem est ration, unde bonum et malum in actibus humanis consideret, secundum quod actus concordat rationi informitae lege divina, vel naturaliter vel per doctrinem, vel per infusionem." (De Malo 2,4) "This is the way good and evil are considered in human acts; the act has to be in accord with reason, which reason is transformed from within by divine law either in a natural way, or by teaching, or by infusion." So the ultimate criterion of morality, we have to see whether the action is in accord with reason, when reason reflects on the action, but not bare reason, but reason having received the input of divine law, perceived either naturally, or by teaching, or by direct action of the Holy Spirit.

Apologetics Page Library Page TOC Index Page Foot Notes Previous Next

Click here to goto CFP Home Page